“Unguided natural processes.” If you follow Intelligent Design at all – or even just follow the yammerings of the crazier Gnu atheists – you’ve probably come across that term, or something like it in the past: the claim or idea that such and such natural processes occur utterly apart from any plan or direction. Behe talks about how his work and arguments establish that something other than “unguided natural processes” would have to have been at work to explain what we see in nature, at least based on the information we have currently. Dembski says similar, with some important caveats. On the other side of the discussion, Jerry Coyne and others insist that modern evolutionary theory is wed to the idea that the processes at work in evolutionary theory are utterly unguided and unintended. You’d likely see similar when it comes to cosmology, physics, and other scientific fields.
But even if they disagree about the power of “unguided natural processes”, all of them seem united in the agreement that at least some processes in nature can be scientifically labeled as such – so it’s fair to say they’d agree that Lenski’s lab documents the outcomes of unguided natural processes.
Which puts me in a bind, since I think each and every one of them are wrong. In fact, I think they are trivially wrong, and this post is going to be sufficient to demonstrate as much to most reasonable people.
I want to be clear exactly what I’m disputing here: the claim that science shows that this or that process or set of processes is “unguided”. That claim that historical outcomes – of evolution, of cosmology, of physics and otherwise – were/are entirely and completely the result of blind nature following no plan, no map or intention, full stop.
It’s important to note that I’m not making the claim that science shows that this guidance does, in fact, exist. My view is that science is stone cold silent on these questions by necessity – they are beyond its scope, making it incapable of affirming and denying the activity of God in nature. Or gods. Or, for that matter, programmers in a simulated universe, or demiurges, or advanced aliens, or otherwise. This has always made me the odd man out among the UD contributors, but what I’m talking about actually goes far beyond considerations of ID. When I infer design, I rely on arguments, analogies, observations, intuitions, impressions, philosophy, metaphysics and more. I may even make reference to science, empirical observations and more. Frankly, I may even think I have arguments that are compelling on this front, and should lead to a design inference (or much, much more) for people who encounter them.
But I don’t think that’s science. It’s just logic, thinking, arguments, observations and axioms. Great, respectable stuff, but science, it ain’t.
I could go on for a while about why I think this – what my approach to the demarcation problem is and more. But I’m going to keep this simple.
Someone who tells me “science shows this process was/is unguided” is making a claim. The burden of proof is on them upon the instant.
For science – as opposed to philosophy or metaphysics or intuition or otherwise – to show something, you’re going to need a hypothesis, an experiment, a result. Nowadays, most people would probably insist on the supposed gold standard of peer-reviewed research. What’s more, you’re going to need a hypothesis without obvious, glaring holes in it – if you present a hypothesis of ‘I think God will make this tennis ball I’m holding in my hand turn into a pigeon’, it’s going to be trivial to tear your experimental concept apart immediately.
So, if science were able to show that selection processes, mutation processes, even radioactive processes, etc were unguided, what I’d expect to see is the same for any other supposedly scientific claim: experiments, peer-reviewed research. And this research would have to stand up to scrutiny. Lack these things, and it doesn’t matter if the claim in question is ultimately true – whatever the reasoning process is that’s being used to arrive at this conclusion, it’s not science.
At first glance, this seems like hairsplitting. But the impact on modern thought would actually be tremendous if this were more widely recognized: it, at once, is completely sufficient to defang nearly the entire suite of evangelical atheist claims about science. It turns out that evolutionary science hasn’t so much as dented the claim that design exists in biology, because the presence or lack of design is a question science is completely incapable of answering. The same holds true for every bit of physical science you wish to reference – it applies just as much to fundamental forces of nature as it does to evolutionary claims and more. Quite a lot can be discovered about those processes, but ‘guidance’ is off the table as far as science goes.
Naturally, I think this is going to be difficult to accept on all sides. The Gnu Atheist cannot – to accept this point, because to do so is to grant an unconditional surrender on one of the most central claims of the modern evangelical atheist movement. ID proponents will have a problem with it because it calls into question, if not necessarily directly, whether design inferences are science or not. BioLogos-styled Christian Darwinists will dislike it because the evangelical atheists will be in distress at the claim, and that’s generally enough to cow them.
But it’s the clear and obvious truth of the matter. If it wasn’t, these experiments would not only exist – people would be screaming about them. There’d be an episode of Cosmos devoted to it. Instead, we get side-arguments and smuggled in conclusions. And that’s all we’ll ever get, because this is an example of question where science, on its own, becomes basically useless.